Popular Science

23 April 2013

As managing producer of PBS’s award-winning SciGirls, Emily Stevens ’85 has her job down to a science

StevensFINAL-83HresB.jpgEmily Stevens ’85 can still remember sitting nervously in the ballroom of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles on the evening of June 17, 2011, wearing a black dress she had borrowed from a friend. She and her colleagues were at the Daytime Entertainment Creative Arts Emmy Awards, waiting to hear whether the first season of their show, SciGirls, had won an Emmy for Outstanding New Approaches in Children’s Television. “The announcer mispronounced it ‘Sky Girls’, ” Stevens says with a laugh, “but we were so excited we won that it didn’t really matter.”

Stevens is the managing producer for SciGirls, a reality show for girls ages 8–12 that’s produced by Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) and aired nationwide on PBS. The show’s Emmy award recognizes its innovative format: the TV episodes feature teams of girls who solve a range of problems using science, and the interactive website lets viewers further explore the topics at home. Recent episodes have featured girls using biomimicry to create boots that won’t slip on ice, building an ice-cream maker powered by a bicycle, and learning to collect forensic evidence with a criminologist.

“Our goal is to keep girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math,” Stevens says. “When they reach age 11 or 12, many girls lose interest in these areas, and there’s a serious lack of women pursuing math and science degrees and careers. Research shows that girls need to see more female role models in those fields, they generally prefer to work in teams rather than alone, and they’re interested in applying their creativity and talent to making a difference in the world. We use these ideas in the show to keep girls engaged, and independent evaluations (required by the National Science Foundation grants we’ve received) report that these strategies are working.”

SciGirls began as an outreach effort connected to Dragonfly TV, another PBS science show that features several short segments in each half-hour episode. “That format appeals more to boys,” Stevens says. “SciGirls sticks with the same team of girls for the entire half hour so the audience can get to know them.” SciGirls also features female mentors in a wide variety of scientific careers from archaeology and ecology to app programming and technology-based fashion design. “Girls relate to the mentors, and they can see themselves potentially following a similar path,” she says.

An economics major at Carleton, Stevens doesn’t have a background in science, but says she’s always loved math. Her job duties include overseeing the show’s budget, managing staff, negotiating contracts, and scheduling shoots across the United States. Stevens loves working behind the scenes in a creative industry. She cultivated a love for the arts at Carleton, where she was heavily involved in theater and took several media studies courses. “I help creative people realize their visions,” Stevens says. “The producers develop the content, and I shepherd the process of making it happen.”

Stevens sees herself primarily as a problem solver. “Every episode has unique challenges, from shooting at a remote archeological dig with no power to shooting underwater in the Chesapeake Bay.”

Yet SciGirls’ biggest challenge is securing funding for the show, which is paid for mostly through grants. In its first two seasons, SciGirls received major grants from the National Science Foundation and such corporate sponsors as L’Oreal and PPG Industries. The Office of Naval Research participated in a customized episode, “SciGirls at Sea,” which was filmed at Annapolis.

“Nothing is guaranteed in television production,” says Stevens, who is currently working with a team to secure funding for the show’s third season. “I’ve been lucky to work with such talented people. It’s so gratifying when we hear from girls, their parents, and teachers around the country that girls are inspired by SciGirls to pursue a science career.”

Between seasons of SciGirls, Stevens works on other TPT projects. She recently produced Transplant: A Gift for Life, a documentary that followed several patients waiting to receive organ transplants and aired on PBS this winter.

“It’s an honor to work for TPT, where we reach such a wide audience as a trusted source of programming,” Stevens says. “I worked in Hollywood for years; that was great experience, but in contrast to movies and cable, PBS reaches 89 percent of all U.S. television households.”

Despite the funding challenges, Stevens sees a bright future for public television. “TV as we know it is changing,” she says. “With its TV and web format and outreach initiatives, SciGirls is part of TPT’s evolution into a multimedia company. I’m proud to be a part of that.” 

Web Extra: Learn more about SciGirls.